Thursday, September 15, 2011

Defining Myth

Steve Hays has touched on the issue of how we define myth with respect to Genesis. As he suggested, there are a variety of possible definitions. Consider J. W. Rogerson:

How to define the word "myths" is a relatively easy matter...How to define "myth" is another matter altogether. While most, if not all, biblical scholars would agree that the word myth may denote what produces myths, or may mean the understanding of the world which is contained in them, agreement would end as soon as these generalizations were made more specific. Some would argue that myths are produced by a naïve, pre-scientific outlook and that the world-view contained in myths must retreat as science advances. Others would regard myths as the product of a way of knowing different science, expressing truths independently of the knowledge, or lack of it, of scientific causes. There are probably two main reasons for such differences of opinion, the one historical, the other theoretical...The modern period of study of myth begins, however, with the Enlightenment. What made this period different from the periods that preceded it was that new myths were discovered from many parts of the world...Myths were clearly to be seen as a universal phenomenon among mankind, and further impetus was given to discovering what lay behind them.

...what produces myths and what they mean, is the outcome of the length of time that they have been studied and the complex questions about man and culture which are implied. To restrict the question of myth to its meaning in relation to the Bible is to court disaster. Time and again, myth (however understood) has been taken into biblical studies from other disciplines, and it is only by appreciating the wider study of myth that we shall avoid the "slipperiness" of the word, and the confusion this inevitably brings...


(a) Myth as a Lack of Rationality

This can be described as the Enlightenment theory of myth. Myth is a defective understanding of scientific causes, but because man finds it necessary to explain phenomena, theories are put forward in the absence of scientific knowledge. One result is the personification of natural forces...The process of explanation can also go beyond natural forces. The absence of a body of scientific laws makes belief in what Enlightenment man would call miracle all too easy. This in turn assists belief in the constant intervention of the gods or supernatural powers in the affairs of men, and we are brought close to myth as the opposite of history...On this view, myth is a passing phase in the development of mankind, similar to the childhood of an adult...

(b) Myth as an Aspect of Creative Imagination

In opposition to the Enlightenment view, the Romantic movement of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries regarded myths as an expression of the deepest creative potentialities of man. Myths were a constant source of inspiration to dramatists, poets and painters; they expressed profound truths about human existence, and therefore were not to be regarded merely as a relic of man's childhood. Indeed, the very simplicity of man in his earliest stages of development would enable him to be open to intuitions of truth that would not be available to later, sophisticated ages. Myths were therefore not to be explained away as inadequate science, but to be interpreted symbolically.


(c) The Social Role of Myth

...myths have been seen as products of society, embodying common values and ideals, and expressing them in activities such as worship. In OT study, this view has been used positively as something present in the religion of the OT, and negatively used as something found among ancient Israel's neighbours but rejected by the OT.


(d) Myth in Relation to History

...According to Thielicke, "There are myths which are pictorial explanations of certain facts of history," and as an example, he cites the virgin birth, which is "the symbol of the historical fact that Jesus was the Son of God." What is being said here, and also in OT studies, is that if God is believed to be at work in the historical process, it will be necessary to present history in mythical ways. There will be a deliberate or unconscious use of images and symbols in order to bring out the divine purpose believed to be behind the events."


The four approaches to myth outlined above show something of the complexity and range of meaning of the word, without any means being exhaustive. The approaches have been deliberately separated out. That it is possible for the use of myth by one writer to be a complex blend of several different understandings of the word will now be illustrated from Bultmann's contributions to Kerygma and Myth I.



To summarize, Bultmann deploys three views of myth in order to maintain his position. The "History of Religions" view is in fact a foil for the NT to allow for the uniqueness of the latter, because it brings the redeemer into the historical process. The Enlightenment view precludes any allowance for transcendence or truth about the world; theses are part of the obsolete world view. In turn, this supports Bultmann's attempt, based on the existential view of myth, to do away entirely with the objective content of NT cosmology so that faith may be evoked by hearing of the word alone.

"Slippery Words: Myth," Sacred Narrative: Readings in the Theory of Myth, ed. Alan Dundes (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1984), 63-71.

While myth is often employed as a term of abuse, a nuanced and meaningful discussion of Genesis "as myth" will require a qualified definition of the term.

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